- Associated Press - Saturday, December 5, 2015

BELOIT, Wis. (AP) - Sketches and patterns hang on the walls, while stacks of exotic woods are shelved, waiting.

This is the laboratory of Jerry Swanson, a man turning passion for sound into a quest to build guitars.

Each of the instruments is built by hand, some with mother-of-pearl placed delicately in the fretboard.

None are painted - doing so would distract from the intricate wood grains - and no two are the same.

“The woods all give you different sounds,” Swanson told the Beloit Daily News (https://bit.ly/1O4JQvh ). “I’m hooked on Limba, which is from Africa.”

For all of the hours Swanson spends building a guitar, he spends even more exploring their abilities.

“With each one I build, I try to do something a little different and see what tone it has,” he said.

There’s always a rush of excitement when those first few notes are played on the newest creation.

Although it’s a lot of work, Swanson says he enjoys the process because music makes him “feel good.”

And, looking at his past, it’s not hard to believe when Swanson says it may have saved his life.

Growing up in Beloit, Swanson’s early teen years were spent idolizing KISS frontman Gene Simmons.

With his booming bass guitar, Simmons epitomized the growing notion of what it meant to be a rock star.

“KISS really drew me to music because they were cool and had the heaviest sound at the time,” Swanson said.

It took a little work, but Swanson was able to eventually convince his parents he needed music lessons.

His first instrument wasn’t anything fancy - a generic cream colored beginner’s bass - but it did the job.

“I was 14 when I decided that I wanted to be Ace (Frehley) instead and became a guitar player,” Swanson said.

In high school, he was in different bands and began an attempt to grow out his hair (Mom put a stop to that).

Swanson says he had all intentions of becoming famous, but adult responsibilities snuck up after graduation.

“I got married, had a daughter, moved to Florida and there was a long list of things that got in the way,” he said.

So he put down the guitars, closed up the gig cases and set out to become a construction worker.

“I really enjoyed it because I liked building stuff and every day was so different,” Swanson said of the work.

Little did he know that after eventually becoming an iron worker, his life would vastly change at 26.

After falling 16 feet and hitting the concrete, Swanson says he felt like both of his feet were floating in midair.

“I kept telling the people to put my feet down,” he said. “I guess that’s a common (sensation) after you get paralyzed.”

It only took a few seconds for the accident, but what happened would forever change the path he was going to take.

A spinal fusion surgery was able to stabilize his body’s needs, but it took time to overcome the mental toll.

“I couldn’t go back to my old house or my job, so my family had to live out of a hotel for 15 months,” Swanson said.

During that period, his relationship began to fall apart. He says he wasn’t sure what to do or how to move forward.

Just as his life seemed too much to handle, Swanson received a phone call from a long-lost friend out of the blue.

“My old friend Matt (Hofstrom) from Clinton, who I played in bands with, said he was living only 30 miles away,” Swanson said.

Once they reunited, Swanson was sent home with an offset V-shaped guitar. It wasn’t long before he grabbed a pick.

“I was at a low point in my life and I started writing songs to get it out,” he said. “I got hurt and I didn’t grieve.”

Once he started to play, Swanson couldn’t stop. Music became a place of comfort, even though it was a challenge.

“It was a little uncomfortable to hold the guitar, but I don’t think I’d still be here if Matt hadn’t called,” he said.

Music has never left Swanson’s side since that meeting with Matt. It has been the one constant in his life.

In the early 2000s, Swanson moved back to the Stateline Area. He played with bands, but is now on to other projects.

Of course he builds his beautiful guitars, but he also co-hosts and produces a weekly podcast all about metal music.

The podcast, “Rockin’ Metal Revival” is recorded in Beloit with Swanson’s friend Greg Hanthorne, whom he met while performing.

“Greg is the man and knows all about how to reach the artists,” Swanson said. “We enjoy spreading the word about their music.”

For Hanthorne and Swanson, the podcast gives them a chance to share songs that are normally not heard on the mainstream radio.

It also gives them the opportunity to interview musicians who have impacted the music industry, including good ol’ Ace Frehley.

“Jerry and I have the same kind of sense of humor and love of music, so we have fun with the podcast,” said Hanthorne.

Their friendship was immediate, Hanthorne said, and he thinks Swanson is “one of the most remarkable people” he’s ever met.

“It seems like I’ve known him forever,” Hanthorne said. “He can do anything he sets his mind to and nothing stops him.”

That undying drive to succeed has helped Swanson tremendously as he continues to experiment with building guitars.

The process is almost a therapy, of sorts. He can relax and try out new ideas, like making a “Metal Horns” headstock.

Swanson also can problem solve, something he’s always enjoyed, and find solutions that others may not think of.

One example is that guitar players typically play while standing up and the instrument held out from their body.

Rather than have his abilities defined by a wheelchair getting in the way, Swanson found an alternative that works.

He throws typical guitar patterns to the wayside. As Swanson says, “if you want a Gibson shape, go and get a Gibson.”

“Instead I make all of my guitars with notches so that I hold it to play in different positions while sitting,” he said.

Swanson has only ever named one guitar. It’s a double neck he made and named “Darlene” after his late mother.

Each of the instruments take on a special meaning, and Swanson says there’s not many that he would part with.

He has sold a custom guitar to former Metallica bassist Jason Newstead, though, and given one away for charity.

“It’s not really a business … I make the guitars for me,” Swanson said of the art. “They’re like my babies.”

Matt Hofstrom passed away of cancer at the age of 37, just shy of 10 years ago, but Swanson still thinks of him often.

Every time he sketches out a guitar idea, or selects a new design, Swanson says he is reminded of what he owes to Matt.

“It’s still really hard because he saved me, and there’s nothing I could do for him,” he said. “I’d build anything for him.”


Information from: Beloit Daily News, https://www.beloitdailynews.com

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